This weekend we checked out the Chrome Web Lab in the London Science Museum.
It’s the first time I’ve seen a major museum host an interactive exhibit on the wonder of the web. As we wove through throngs of kids drooling over display cases as web-powered robots drew in sand, it made me realize what an amazing learning opportunity an exhibit like this is.
The Web Lab features five different stations, each a playful interaction of machines, haptic interfaces, and occasional online users.
But while I enjoyed getting my portrait drawn by robots and playing instruments with virtual friends, the Web Lab fell short of exposing the real “magic” behind all its wonders: the web itself.
Beneath all of the chrome, the only time you could glimpse any code was when a staff member had to reboot a machine.
Which got me thinking: how would you design an exhibit that put the web on display and let you play with code in a fun, accessible way?
An Exhibit for Webmaking
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are some ideas for a webmaker exhibit:
- Hackability. Much of the Web Lab seemed predetermined, or at least quite limited in its variables. A webmaker exhibit would invite the unexpected and encourage playful appropriation. Perhaps it could provide a glossary of HTML tags that you could use throughout the exhibit, and prompts for how the tags can be recombined to create new commands and attributes.
- Interoperable activities. The stations would be interoperable, so something you made in one activity would transfer over to the other and let you keep adding to it. That way, you see how the pieces fit together.
- Real code. You’d definitely get to manipulate real code. Maybe it’d use an interface like Joe’s CodeCards to invite users to shuffle syntax and run neat, short programs.
- Design. The team behind the Chrome Web Lab did a brilliant job with a coherent visual concept, a clear path through the space, and gorgeous fiducial markers on name tags so you could save your work and play with it when you got home. Having a consistent user experience and an attractive design goes a long way, letting visitors focus more on what they’re trying to build rather than how to navigate the space.
- Interest-driven. The Web Lab gave a lot of presets, which is smart in an exhibit where you just want things to work and to be inoffensive. But their stations didn’t allow for interest-driven personalization. So for example, in an image search activity, you could only select from a prepared list of ca. 20 images. While it’d be riskier, it’d also be more interesting to allow custom searches. Or just more activities that let you play with real content from the web.
It was definitely a pleasure to see the Chrome Web Lab, and together with the Exquisite Forrest exhibit at the Tate Modern, Google is making a smart move to be present in heavily visited museums in London. I’d argue there’s an opportunity to complement these exhibits with more activities that emphasize making and hacking, while still being durable and appropriate enough for thousands of visitors.